Neena Gopal was the last journalist to interview Rajiv Gandhi on the day of his assassination, which she witnessed. A quarter of a century later, she has written about the assassination, the man himself and how he was brought down, in what is now a history she has become part of. She spoke with Firstpost about her book, the fateful day and the legacy of Rajiv Gandhi.
Was it more of an eventuality that you would go on to write this book? What was the reason to do so? Why did the story of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination have to be told?
It’s a story that had to be told. And not from the unifocal point of view of an official or politician, who was far removed from the events of the night and whose focus stayed on the ‘who killed Rajiv Gandhi’ line, but from an eyewitness who saw the man she had spent the last 45 minutes talking to, blown up right there, not far from where she stood. I’ve had a number of my classmates from school and college saying they clearly remember where they were and what they were doing when news of Rajiv’s assassination broke. How some were stuck on trains, others staying home, fearing the worst. But for many in today’s generation, who knew nothing of the story behind the assassination, the book has been an eye-opener, it brought them up to speed.
It wasn’t just the LTTE that didn’t want him to return to power. Neither did the Colombo elite. Or for that matter Islamabad. Or Washington. The world was changing, and Rajiv Gandhi’s first stint as premier had shown the world that he was intent on tackling anyone who challenged India. The narrative therefore needed to be taken forward, from the events that led to his assassination, to India’s flawed Sri Lanka policy (then as much as now), to lay bare the unspoken rivalry between our various intelligence agencies and the diplomats and advisers who served as part of Rajiv Gandhi’s inside circle, whose contrarian advice led to our botched relationship with a separatist group that India singularly failed to read as malevolent and antithetical to Indian interests.
What do you remember most clearly of the conversation that you had with Gandhi minutes before his assassination? You have said in interviews that he kind of felt it was coming. How so?
As I write in the book, he had an almost prescient premonition, I believe, of his own death. He may have been sanguine about the complete absence of security. But he knew — and so did everybody around him — that the single gunman who was assigned to protect him could have done nothing if anyone had made an attempt to knife him or shoot at him on the road from the airport to the election rally. That one gunman wasn’t even with him. He was in another car. Every time people shouted out his name and chanted slogans on the road to Sripreumbudur, the car slowed and people would reach into the car and try to grab him.
Did he have any inkling of his own death? I did ask him very pointedly whether he thought his life was in danger. And this is what Rajiv Gandhi said, “Have you noticed how every time any South Asian leader of any import rises to a position of power or is about to achieve something for himself or his country, he is cut down, attacked, killed ... look at Mrs [Indira] Gandhi, Sheikh Mujib, look at Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at Zia ul Haq, Bandaranaike ..."
As a journalist, your job would have been to ask him questions and report back. But when you become a part of history yourself, does it become very difficult to be objective or say detached?
A journalist is always part of the story. And he or she is never objective or detached. He cannot be. That would be just plain boring. It’s the viewpoint of the writer and his or her report on the events as they unfold, on the interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee that the reader or the viewer gets to see and hear.
In the case of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, there was no question of being objective or detached. They were no sides to take here. And how can you stay detached when the man you’d just been interviewing, whom every opinion poll said was going to make a comeback and become India’s next Prime Minister, dies right before your eyes, felled by India’s very first suicide bomber.
That is a story to be told at so many levels. Being detached would serve no purpose at all.
Could the assassination have been prevented? You say in the book that a number of not-so- random circumstances colluded on the given day. Have you tried to sieve them through a narrative, tie them together maybe?
There were, I am told, eight attempts in all, on Rajiv Gandhi’s life. He was a target not just for the Sikhs and Khalistanis, intelligence agencies believed the ISI, the Israelis and the CIA had him in their sights as well. Getting corroborative evidence to prove any of this is hard, virtually impossible, but there is one story that I heard that showed how vulnerable he was — when Rajiv was visiting an European capital, his bodyguard found a fully loaded weapon hidden away in the hall where he was to address an event.
Closer home, an IPKF commander told me that he hadn’t put it past Sri Lankan President Premadasa either, in winding up Prabhakaran to do what he did best — bump off his rivals. Premadasa had a virulent hatred for India that came across in every interaction he had with Indian diplomats. That grouse is the elephant in the room even today.
And as I write in the book, the choice of the venue, the decision to campaign in this little town was completely Rajiv’s decision. But he was a sitting duck because two successive governments — VP Singh’s and Chandrasekhar’s — took away his Z security, despite the fact that his life was under threat. Both leaders were never adequately questioned on why they allowed petty politics to ‘trump’ a former prime minister’s safety.
The Congress party in Tamil Nadu was extremely unhappy that Rajiv was coming to campaign for Margatham Chandrasekhar, who also entrusted the arrangements to her clearly inept secretary, while the police simply did not put simple safety measures in place. They were all remiss. How else could a woman weighed down with half a kilo of RDX and explosives and a nine volt battery get through the screening procedure? She wasn’t a Congress worker. She had no badge, she was known to no one, she was wearing a salwar kameez and looked completely out of place. Why wasn’t she stopped? Barring one policewoman, no one did.
India, and Rajiv Gandhi in particular, underestimated the ire of the LTTE. Is that just one of the lessons from history that we should be learning? That we know so little about our neighbours — the idea of the ‘Indian’ subcontinent as just being an extension of India — that we still cannot fully understand our relationship or have an approach that qualifies as sound?
Sri Lanka was not Bangladesh. It was not Pakistan. Sri Lanka was a whole different ballgame, and Indira Gandhi understood that — by keeping a Tamil card alive and in play. It was a threat that she held over President Jayawardene’s head but never used.
To Rajiv, and his advisers, Sri Lanka needed a quick fix. And as you know, there are no quick fixes in foreign policy.The contrast between mother and son, two successive leaders, two successive governments couldn’t have been greater. As I’ve said in my book, "One talked war but never waged it; the other talked peace but went to war."
Did India misread Prabhakaran, believing he would do their bidding? Yes. There’s no disputing that. As the Research and Analysis Wing sceretary Dr S Chandrasekharan — who was virtually the LTTE chief Prabhakaran’s minder — tells it: “I didn’t see it coming. I thought I knew him, but one didn’t expect this. It makes me want to weep; it saddens me deeply that we were unable to save Rajiv Gandhi. We should have saved him, we should have known. We didn’t really get Prabhakaran.”
If the man who knew him best couldn’t see Prabhakaran for what he was — a ruthless megalomaniac who thought nothing of eliminating anyone who disagreed with him or stood in his way — how could less informed mortals understand what made Prabhakaran tick.
You have witnessed an assassination and also witnessed a failed attempt at one. What resonates for you from these experiences? Most people would be crass enough to suggest it ‘makes’ your career. Is that true? Would you rather have not been in those places at that time? Have these experiences changed you permanently?
There’s nothing crass about that suggestion. I make it myself. That’s reality. I am not sure whether it can be characterised as being at the wrong place at the right time, or the right place at the wrong time. Either way, as a journalist, one has seen history being made. Many of these events do stay with you, however macabre, however grisly, some heart-warming and moving.
We live in a time when the Gandhian heritage is fast becoming a burden and a contentious issue for the country’s oldest party. Do you see any of the father in the son? What is Rajiv’s legacy according to you and do you see the Gandhian legacy surviving beyond the current political climate?
Rajiv Gandhi was the new millennial, a man born much before his time. He was impatient for change, he knew that the answer to India’s ills would be rooted in an economic transformation that would cut away the bureaucratic, socialist stranglehold of the past. Unlike his children, he had a job. Despite the Gandhi moniker, he was the epitome of the urban householder: A regular guy. And as a political leader, he had a great sense of India’s place in the world.
Of his son Rahul, so little is known. Despite being an MP twice over in Manomhan Singh’s government, he was not given charge of a ministry, the discharge of which would have shown the country what kind of skills he possessed in leadership and governance. As vice president of the party, he has unfortunately seen the Congress dip to its lowest ever number of seats in its 130-year-old history.
They were two very different people. And while Rajiv Gandhi lived in a time when he could still bank on the Gandhi power and mystique, it is no longer true today. The rise and rise of Narendra Modi and the many regional leaders like Nitish Kumar, Mamta Banerjee, and Jayalalitha, have changed the political landscape, greatly diminishing the once overwhelmingly pan-Indian footprint of the Congress party. So yes, the question [that most of us are asking] is — are the Gandhis still relevant in the India of 2016?
As for lessons learnt? The Lankan misadventure held us back from retaliating even when India’s parliament was attacked. Despite the Kargil infiltration, India did not cross the border; after 26/11, it was the same story. Despite pouring billions of dollars in developmental assistance into Afghanistan, India has held back from putting boots on the ground in Afghanistan.
I distinctly remember former foreign secretary Salman Haider, looking at me as if I was completely obtuse when I asked why India was so reluctant to go into Kabul. He said “Don’t you remember 1987?”